Game Preview: Raptors at Celtics

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics (4-8) will look to build on their 4-1 record against sub-.500 teams when they host the Toronto Raptors (4-10) at 7:30 p.m. tonight in TD Garden.

Neither of these teams has been able to find its groove yet this season, but the Celtics are making strides in the right direction each and every game. Three of Boston’s last four contests have been against title contenders and it has had an opportunity to win every one of those games in the fourth quarter.

In the end, though, the Celtics haven’t been able to get over the hump and head into tonight’s game mired in a five-game losing streak. That is the most consecutive losses the team has experienced since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived in Boston prior to the 2007-08 season.

It’s surprising that Boston has lost this many games in a row, and it will be even more surprising if that losing streak continues tonight. The C’s are taking on a Raptors squad that has also lost five straight games and will likely be playing without its best player, Andrea Bargnani.

Bargnani is currently averaging career highs in scoring (22.3 PPG), shooting percentage (48.9 percent), rebounding (6.5 RPG) and assists (1.9 APG). Toronto will likely be missing all of those numbers tonight, as the big man is sidelined with a strained left calf. Bargnani is listed as day-to-day and is active on the team’s injury report but he hasn’t played since injuring the calf a week ago against the Sacramento Kings.

Toronto will start Amir Johnson at center if Bargnani does not play. Johnson is coming off of a double-double performance against Atlanta on Monday night that included 13 points and 10 rebounds. In two preseason games against the Celtics, though, Johnson did not score more than four points or grab more than five rebounds in an average of 19 minutes of action per game.

The Celtics went 2-0 against the Raptors during exhibition play, but those games are almost meaningless now. Each team has now been together for more than a month and are about a fifth of the way through their regular seasons. The Raptors are about where they were expected to be at this point, but the C’s definitely are not.

Boston entered this season with title aspirations, and those haven’t subsided despite its sluggish start. The talent is clearly still on the roster and it has been visible against the league’s top competition. The Celtics now need to string that type of play together on a consistent basis to be able to turn their record around.

Tonight’s game might be the start of that turnaround. The Raptors are reeling right now and should be without their top offensive player tonight. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a team that already has a -5.9 point differential average this season, which is fifth worst in the NBA.

The Celtics’ record says that they’re reeling, too, but it’s clear that the team is moving in the right direction. Boston hasn’t had anything to show for that positive movement over the past week, but it will hope to change all of that with a win tonight over Toronto.

Offensive Breakout, Or Offensive Struggle?

The Celtics and Raptors are statistically two of the worst offensive teams in the NBA right now. They rank 26th and 28th in the league, respectively, in points per game this season. Neither team is averaging more than 90.0 PPG.

Boston is known for limiting its opponents to about 90.0 PPG, but it definitely doesn’t have a reputation for not being able to score that many points. The numbers tell us that this game will be a very low scoring contest, but the Celtics might be able to sidestep that type of game tonight.

Paul Pierce has helped his team increase its scoring output in each of its past three games. The scoring jumps haven’t been significant, but they’re enough to show that the wheels are starting to turn on offense. Pierce has been the offensive sparkplug, as he has put up 22.5 PPG over his last two contests.

Will the Celtics finally break out offensively tonight? The hope is yes, but even if they don’t they should still have a chance to win this game against an offensively-challenged Toronto team.

Who Will Lead Toronto?

Toronto doesn’t have much offense to begin with, but when Bargnani isn’t on the court things get even worse. Outside of Bargnani, there is not a single member of Toronto’s team who averages more than 14.5 PPG.

That leaves the following burning question for the Raptors: Who is going to score their points tonight? The top option is DeMar DeRozan, who looked as if he was on the verge of becoming a great player in this league when he averaged 17.2 PPG as a second-year player last season. This season, however, he has regressed and is scoring just 14.5 PPG on 41.4 percent shooting.

If DeRozan doesn’t step up and lead the Raptors at the offensive end tonight, it’s unclear who will. With Boston’s stout defense, Toronto might be in for yet another low scoring game.

Keep JO Rolling

Kevin Garnett is Boston’s top rebounder this season with an average of 7.5 boards a night, but Jermaine O’Neal has emerged over the past two games as a great presence on the boards. O’Neal has racked up double-figure rebounds in two consecutive games, totaling 23 over those two contests. That total becomes even more impressive when you take into account that he has averaged only 25.5 minutes of action during those two games.

As O’Neal said after Monday night’s game against the Thunder, he’s starting to feel great from a physical standpoint.

“I’m starting to get my legs back as far as rebounding, getting my timing back, all of that,” he said after noting that his job on this team is to defend and rebound.

With JO feeling great, the Celtics have taken care of some of the rebounding issues they’ve been experiencing early in the season. Boston outrebounded Oklahoma City 48-40 Monday night. It would love to outrebound the Raptors tonight as well, but the C’s will only get there if O’Neal keeps the ball rolling.